“Am I all that Alexander said?
Did I do to you what he said?
Did I withhold from you what he said?
You did not know for sure.
And yet, you still loved me.”
Zara Khatum, June 2021
The business side of being an author can be daunting. One of my learnings along this journey is the question “what genre is your book?” In my journey, I have attended live four writers’ conferences and listened to recordings from four others. Many commercially successful writers clearly target their works to a specific audience and their reading desires. In contrast, there are those who write for the sake of the art of expression, often categorized into literary fiction. And then there are those whose works cross many genres. The Matriarch Matrix is one such work. Cross-genre books are difficult for literary agents and publishers to market as they need to clearly communicate to the buying public “what is this?”
In my effort to develop deeper point of view and emotional closeness in The Matriarch Matrix, I studied the teachings of romance writers, joined the Romance Writers of America, and read outside my normal genres…that is I read across a number of romance subgenres. I find that successful romance writers are simply superb at developing 3D characters, deep emotional wounds, and building page turning conflict and suspense. As I learned from these authors, I built in an underlying romance into The Matriarch Matrix. Actually, two romances. One between two “unlikely to be a couple” people who are as vastly different from each other as are the worlds they grew up in. And a background romance of a Catholic priest and a Sister, both in their formations and both in love. But in the bigger picture, is this book a romance?
***For the quick answer, see addendum added two weeks after this post was original made at bottom of page***
Definitions of Romance Novels
As per Romance Writers of America:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.
From Writer’s Digest:
Distinguishing a true romance novel from a novel that includes a love story can be difficult, because both types of books tell the story of two people falling in love against a background of other action. The difference lies in which part of the story is emphasized.
In a romance novel, the core story is the developing relationship between a man and a woman. The other events in the story line, though important, are secondary to that relationship. If you were to take out the love story, the rest of the book would be reduced in both significance and interest to the reader to the point that it really wouldn’t be much of a story at all.
In contrast, in other types of novels that contain romantic elements, the love story isn’t the main focus. The other action is the most important part of the story; even if the love story were removed, the book would still function almost as well. It might not be as interesting, but it would still be a full story.
From Romance Novelists Association:
Many writers—even those who have just won an award for Romantic writing—deny that they write romantic fiction. So how does one decide that a novel, a story is romantic? The dictionary defines romantic as “characterised by or suggestive of Romance, imaginative, visionary, remote from experience.” Romance, apart from being “the vernacular language of old France” is defined as “a prose tale with scenes and incidents remote from everyday life…”
Is Donna Leon a romantic writer? She writes crime—and extremely well, but her hero is definitely in love with his wife. Tolstoy? Anna Karenina? There’s a love story there all right—but is the book a romantic novel? An editor once referred to Dr Zhivago as “that old saga.” Is it a literary novel or is it a saga? Could it possibly be both? Sarah Harrison, The Dreaming Stones? A great historical or a love story with a great deal of literary merit thrown in?
The Oldest Written Romances
Perhaps one of the oldest, if not the oldest, written romance is that of Callirhoe from the 1st Century CE – the old surviving Greek romance on papyrus. In this story, a supernaturally and exquisitely beautiful new bride is locked away in a tomb after faking her death. Liberated from the tomb by pirates only to be taken into slavery, Callirhoe finds a new life as wife of her slave master. Her husband Chaereas finding out she is still alive pursues Callirhoe. A naval battle and shipwreck later, the two are finally united.
There are those who would argue that the Epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to 2000 BCE, could be the oldest romance. But that would be a very liberal interpretation. See the Further Reading section for more discussion on this topic.
The Earliest Medieval Romances
Much of English romance literature traces its roots to the medieval romances. The first of which was the King Horn, from around 1225 CE, which was derived from the French romance-adventure, Le Roman de Horn, written around 1170 CE. In this romance, deposed prince Horn falls in love with a princess of another land, Rymenhild. But Horn is exiled before they could be married and Rymenhild is bethroed to another king. In his effort to reunite with her, epic deception and battles ensue. And they are happily united in the end.
The Prototype Modern Romance
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Opening line of Pride and Prejudice.
I have to admit, I really did not bond with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as I read it late in life. But when Elizabeth Bennett turns down her first marriage proposal from Mr. Collins, I began to engage with the story. For she forcibly eschews the opening theme of the book. She wishes to marry for something greater than “a good fortune.” That something was love. And I am glad I kept reading as inevitably talks by romance writers refer to the exemplary models and theme from Jane Austen’s classic romance. Classic three act structure. The iconic romantic heroine. The unlikable hero who becomes likable as the reader and the heroine learns more about him. The character arcs which lead the two initially opposing protagonists together to celebrate their love for each other.
Shrek – A Romance or Not?
Elizabeth Bennett in form of a princess who turns ogre at night? Mr. Darcy in form of Shrek? Sacrilege! And yet Shrek exudes the RWA definition of “individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work.” And yes, there is a happy ending with not only two ogres together in the swamp, but donkey and the dragon together as well. This link below provides an amusing analysis. “And remember, Orges are like onions.”
The Matriarch Matrix – A Romance or Not?
In Part II of the book, the two main protagonists “fall in love and struggle to make the relationship work”. Is this the core main focus of the novel? Or is it a sub plot? This is a question for the reader. Thus far, the Amazon and Goodread reviews identify this novel as suspense, mystery, drama.
Zara, the heroine, has sworn herself to celibacy after a number of ill-fated relationships. Her love she wishes to follow in the footsteps of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, eighth-century Persian philosopher/mystic and the single most famous and influential Sufi woman of Islamic history. Zara simply wishes to dedicate her love to Xwedê, Kurdish for Allah, for God.
Peter, the unlikely hero, is in deep despair from his break up from his beloved blonde girlfriend, with whom he intimately shared his love of all things alien and extra-terrestrial. He is primed for rebound and under pressure to mate from his blonde mother whose biological clock is demanding grandchildren.
Zara and Peter are told separately by their grandparents of an ancient myth extolling that “only man and woman together” can solve an ancient mystery which will save the world. As they will find, they are destined to be together. But how can they as they are so desperately and disparately opposed and different?
When these two unlikely of the unlikeliest people meet, Peter thinks Zara has clobbered his skull with a blunt object. As he profusely bleeds, does he notice how Zara nurses and cares for his wound. More importantly, do she realize what she is doing?
The second component of the Romance Writer’s of America romance definition is “An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending”. I wrote two endings for The Matriarch Matrix.
One is a very 1970’s/1980’s French film ending. One of the beta readers capture the sense correctly – “Life goes on”. The other ending made some beta readers cry. An emotionally satisfying ending?
Whether The Matriarch Matrix is a romance or not is up to you the reader to judge. In any event, I hope you find that it is not only an intellectually satisfying read, but an emotionally and spiritually satisfying one as well.
For one last time, Zara clasps his hands in hers, and says, “No matter where you go, your destiny follows you.”
She kisses him lightly on his lips, for she too cannot bear the thought of how long it might be before they will touch again, feel that peace again, if ever again. Peter closes his eyes and savors the moment, which lasts for eternity, and yet ends too quickly. Releasing from the kiss, she readjusts her scarf back into a nice respectful and modest headscarf. And into the government-issued black SUV Zara goes, assertively saying to Dan the shop is closed. And she goes.
The last Peter is to see of Zara. Ever.
***ADDENDUM on October 9, 2017***
Three weeks of actual launch results after this blog post was created, there are 32 reviews on Amazon hovering around 4 stars and the book is #4 on Amazon’s metaphysical fiction new release list. The inferred review feedback is that this book does not meet the US based romance readers’ expectations of a good read. I can understand why. Zara and Peter are dog and cat. Mirrored opposites by design. Not the kind of couple you would typically root for.
I wrote this book with a Western European style, like a 70’s/early 80’s French film. The story is one of the search for love as opposed to romance. Zara for a higher love. And Peter for the meaning of love. And Father Jean-Paul? Perhaps a return to a love he left. One reviewer captured the love essence of this story in her sentence: “It also explores if love outlasts the human body/experience.”
But the most apropos feedback was that of this reviewer who captured the extreme cross-genre aspect of this book.
“I had heard a lot of good things about this book and I was not disappointed. Great plot, a lot of food for thought and good entertainment. If you don‘t mind reading About spiritual and religious topics, and are comfortable with books that do not bother to conform to unspoken genre rules give this great work a try.”
***ADDENDUM on October 16, 2017***
At the New Jersey chapter of the Romance Writers of America’s conference last weekend, many speakers talked of the element of hope, optimistic hope, as a defining characteristic of a romance. A woman who finds hope through a romantic relationship with another person.
In that definition, the story of Zara becomes one of a form of romance as shown by this kind reviewer who has captured the essence of the form of romantic story portrayed in this epic.
For Further Reading:
Giglamesh – A Romance or Not?
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